Coding Bootcamp after Art School
An overly-detailed account of my personal experience surviving the challenges of software engineering bootcamp as a practicing visual artist, former art student and former art teacher.
** Disclaimers: I graduated from art school in 2012 and graduated from bootcamp in 2020. The title here is meant to imply that I could have / probably should have gone sooner. Also I currently work at the bootcamp that I graduated from not out of necessity as much as being passionate about teaching and believing in their mission. And just to be clear, I put in a lot of effort to make sure I was writing this 100% from the perspective of a former student, not a current (happy) employee.
Just for context, I’m an artist working in tech originally from San Francisco. I graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2010 and the Yale School of Art in 2012. For about 8 years after graduating I scraped by around New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area and the Mojave Desert mainly working as an art / art history instructor at a number of colleges and filling in the gaps here and there at a demolition company, a campus gallery, a couple of science museums, a farm stand and as an over-paid studio assistant serf. In 2018 when the allure of the traditional career path in academia was starting to fade I discovered a passion for web-art and programming thanks to the encouragement of my best and oldest friend. Shortly after this I started considering transitioning to a career in software engineering as a better way to support my studio practice and my family. This started off with some self-teaching via Udemy and ultimately resulted in attending a coding bootcamp, specifically App Academy where I currently work as a platform engineer and an instructor.
My Reason for Writing This…
I’m taking the time to write this because when I was trying to figure out my career transition from art to tech personal testimonials like this were extremely helpful. But I never found any testimonials specifically about visual artists getting into software engineering. If I had found one I think it could have saved me a lot of time and anxiety. I don’t have any particular affinity for writing things like this, but I wanted to put all this out there on the off-chance that it might be some small help to another artist considering transitioning to software engineering.
I should have gone straight from art school into a coding bootcamp. It was the smartest thing I’ve ever done for myself, my family and my art practice. Coding bootcamps really are for anyone, including visual artists. 
The Short Version…
If you can’t stomach reading through the whole narrative breakdown that’s about to ensue the main thing I wanted to communicate is just that I should have gone straight from art school into a coding bootcamp. It was the smartest thing I’ve ever done for myself, my family and my art practice. Coding bootcamps really are for anyone, including visual artists.  After graduating from bootcamp and finding a job I feel a freedom in my studio that I don’t think I’ve ever had before. I can keep more regular studio hours, not worry about being able to afford studio space / materials and I’ve found new inspiration in the people and ideas that I encounter every day in the tech community. It’s an exciting time to be an artist working in this industry.
 Just to clarify, when I say everyone I’m not discounting the fact that many people have obligations that prevent them from committing the time and in some cases money necessary to attend a coding bootcamp. But on a positive note I have seen more viable part-time bootcamp programs start to appear that allow people to keep working while they attend.
Deciding to Attend a Bootcamp…
Deciding to go to a coding bootcamp can feel like an enourmous deciscion and in some ways it was the hardest part of the whole experience for me personally. I had heard about coding bootcamps here and there, and I was very aware that web development / software engineering was a good profession to purseu in the 21st century but these things didn’t feel like they had any personal connection to me. My two best friends from high school were working as programmers, but they had degrees in computer science and none of my friends from art school had pursued jobs in tech.
In retrospect, the reason I think it took me so long to seriously consider going to a bootcamp was a combination of not knowing any artists that had attended one and assuming that I wouldn’t be smart enough to make it through one. If I had known what a programming bootcamp really was or how welcoming the software community would be I would have immediately enrolled in a coding bootcamp after graduating from art school in 2012.
As I mentioned already, before enrolling in bootcamp I was working primarily as an adjunct painting, life drawing and art history instructor at a random assortment of colleges across Northern and Southern California for about six years before I even started thinking seriously about changing careers. If you don’t know anything about life as an adjunct instructor, it’s a complicated topic of discussion. Most adjuncts I know don’t get benefits, don’t have job security, don’t have a reasonable guarantee of ever getting full-time employment and effectively have to say yes to everything asked of them (paid or not) or risk never being invited back to teach again with a academic department.
After giving everything I had to adjunct teaching for those six years and learning an immeasurable amount from my students and the other artists I got to work along side, my personal conclusion was that it simply wasn’t a sustainable way to support an art practice or a reasonable adult existence long-term. Some artists manage to make adjuncting work for them through their 30’s and 40’s without losing their passion or sanity along the way, but I don’t think I could have.
In retrospect, it was ridiculous for me to hesitate for so long. I didn’t need anyone’s permission. There’s no rule that says artists can’t be software engineers.
What finally prompted me to consider a bootcamp was a conversation with a coworker (at a farmers market) whose partner had just graduated from one and quickly gotten a full-time job as a software engineer paying something like $80k per year. I now realize that’s pretty low for the field but sounded a lot better than the ~$30k I was averaging. I lazily worked through a couple of half-finished Udemy courses (I will forever recommend anything by Colt Steele, especially his full-stack courses) and got a lot of positive encouragement from my friends and family before I was ready to actually take the plunge. When I finally hit a wall with self-teaching and decided I needed the person-to-person benefits and structure of a more traditional bootcamp, I started seriously looking into options.
In retrospect, it was ridiculous for me to hesitate for so long. I didn’t need anyone’s permission. There is no rule that says artists can’t be software engineers. With that said trying to learn on my own through Udemy and free resources for a time did have value. It gave me some confidence, exposed me to some of the core concepts I’d need and helped me to appreciate my own personal need for all the extra resources a bootcamp education provides.
I was just being overly cautious because again I just didn’t know any artists that had made this transition. And even though some bootcamps offer plans that allow you to pay your tuition only after graduating and finding a job, it’s always a huge financial decision in terms of time.
Finding the Right Bootcamp…
Again, I didn’t know anyone personally that had attended a bootcamp, so unfortunately I had to Google my way through researching which ones I wanted to apply to. Luckily at the time App Academy seemed clearly to have the best reputation in terms of student experience and job placement so it was easy enough to know where to start. They also had a no-money-upfront policy, which I found extremely interesting and refreshing as someone who’d been working in traditional academic environments for so long.
I also considered the software bootcamps offered through UC Berkeley and UC Davis’ Extension programs primarily because of my proximity to them geographically and my general respect for the schools. But ultimately I didn’t end up researching those as seriously and I didn’t learn as much about their reputation.
Visiting in person was the most helpful factor in finding the right bootcamp. It’s obviously not always an option but looking back it should have been my top priority.
My plan was to keep it simple and start with my first choice, with the possibility of researching other bootcamps if / when I needed to. Surprisingly though I ended up passing the initial entrance exam for App Academy and I was invited to attend a free two week in-person “jump start” program at their San Francisco office that would help me prepare for the next stage of the entrance interview process and work in the same environment as the normal bootcamp students. This seemed like a great way to feel out the realities of the program and figure out if it was a good fit for me so I decided to attend and see where things went.
The second I walked into their office I knew it was the right program for me. It reminded in some indirect way of my first day at art school. It was clearly a challenging, fast-paced environment with a positive competitive energy. Visiting in person was the most helpful factor in finding the right bootcamp. It’s obviously not always an option but looking back it should have been my top priority. It was infinitely more informative than the countless hours of online research I did.
After the two weeks in person learning basic syntax, introductory programing concepts and whiteboarding I felt excited and ready for the second / final entrance interview. I was nervous but it went well and I was admitted to the program. I locked in my start date and had a couple of short weeks to make all the practical preperations that would allow me to concentrate 100% on the bootcamp.
Surviving the First Month…
No matter how many times I had seen the word bootcamp, or heard people say that coding bootcamps were a full-time commitment, nothing could have completely prepared me for how much work would actually be involved. As soon as I started though it became clear. The amount of course material we were offered every day of the first week was staggering, and this would continue for the rest of my time there. Conceptually it felt like every topic required me to build a completely new section of my brain in just a few hours. I had very little technical background to speak of and hadn’t taken a math or science course in over a decade so I had a lot of anxiety about whether or not I was in the right place.
Programming bootcamps really are designed to be as challenging as possible for everyone, but coming from an arts background I noted a few aspects that seemed particularly difficult. Learning to study technical material on a tight deadline was the biggest challenge. I essentially had to invent an entire system for studying that worked specifically for me, even though they offered a lot of guidance. A lot of my fellow bootcamp students had learned techniques that worked for them in high-school or college STEM courses. I almost let it destroy me and it gave me a lot of imposter syndrome but conquering this ended up being one of the things I was most proud of after making it through the program.
To learn how to effectively study I observed my classmates, asked the instructional staff for help and eventually cobbled together something that worked for me. For whatever it’s worth my personal study strategy ended up centering on timed repetition complemented by working through my thought process verbally and using some version of time blocking from the Pomodoro technique. I would compile a list each week of all the algorithms, functions etc. that I needed to practice, then block as much time as possible each night to do them over and over again, keeping written notes on how long they were taking me and explaining my thought process as much as possible out loud (with the door closed to not confuse anyone else in the house).
Putting my studio practice on hold for the duration of the bootcamp was one of the smartest things I did in terms of surviving the stress and time-demands of the program.
The less technical problem that felt particular to me coming from an arts background was adapting to temporarily not having the daily / nightly routine of studio-time. I tried letting myself draw or paint for 15 minutes to an hour each night thinking that it would help me unwind, but it ended up just intensifying my anxiety so eventually I decided to temporarily pack all of my studio supplies into the closet behind by desk. Putting my studio practice on hold for the duration of the bootcamp was one of the smartest things I did in terms of surviving the stress and time-demands of the program. It felt scary but after I graduated all the art materials came back out and I found myself able in a lot of ways to have better studio time than ever.
It’s also probably worth noting that I didn’t end up finding any other visual artists in my cohort of classmates or amongst my instructors. I wasn’t terribly surprised but it didn’t help my anxieties or my imposter syndrome. There were however a fairly large number of people coming from more general liberal arts backgrounds like Philosophy, former-teachers, active musicians and just overall good human beings who ended up forming the community I needed to survive.
My Personal Meltdown…
After a few weeks of extremely intense bootcamp work, right before our first in-person assessment, I had the closest thing to a complete nervous breakdown that I’ve ever had in my adult life. It was definitely triggered by prolonged stress but was mainly physical in nature. This is not an uncommon experience for anyone going through an intense bootcamp experience but it doesn’t get talked about all that much and I think it’s important to note since a large part of the anxiety I felt at the time was fueled by an assumption that I was having an abnormally hard time. Ultimately because I didn’t have any tools for managing this type of acute anxiety attack it forced me to pause my time as a student for a few weeks and pivot to App Academy’s fairly new remote program rather than their in-person program in San Francisco which was my preference even though I was living in Sacramento at the time.
For the first leg of my bootcamp experience I had been doing really well with all the material but I felt like I was losing ground and getting overwhelmed with a back-log of material as well as trying to keep up with other students without a real personal study strategy in place yet. I was staying with a family member in Oakland and commuting into San Francisco everyday with no plan as to when I was going to be able to see my partner in Sacramento given the demanding schedule of the bootcamp.
Along with not yet systematized my study strategy I also hadn’t realized that I had to consciously keep an eye on my eating and sleep routines. I got so engrossed by the stress and all the material we were learning I somehow forgot to eat a real meal for about 48 hours and let myself stay up too late studying too many nights in a row. It eventually came to a head and I found myself dry-heaving from nerves on-and-off all night. The next day I barely held myself together long enough to walk into the bootcamp office and request a medical deferral. I had never done anything like this before and I was extremely ashamed and disappointed in myself at the time, much more so than I should have been in retrospect. This was something I’d heard was a common-enough experience for students in bootcamps before I started and ultimately it was a really important part of my journey and personal growth, but it felt extremely abnormal and negative at the time.
A mental and physical health routine is something they didn’t really teach me in art school, but it was critical for my long-term survival at bootcamp. I had to take it very seriously and it felt like it made a huge difference.
I wasn’t sure that I would even be allowed to stay in the bootcamp after this incident, but I found they were very accommodating and understanding. After scheduling my return-date I took a very proactive stance with the encouragement and support of my partner. I immediately scheduled appointments with a medical doctor and psychiatrist that were luckily available to me through the Affordable Health Care Act. I told them very directly that I was in a coding bootcamp and needed to figure out how to manage my stress as directly as possible so I could focus on my work. I scheduled as many meetings as I could before returning to bootcamp and did everything they suggested, including getting a couple of mild prescriptions just in case. That week I also joined a gym, set myself a reasonable 2–3 night a week schedule there and even though I was never a heavy drinker I replaced all alcohol in my weekly routine with the most intense honey-lemon-ginger tea I could concoct coupled with the hottest bath I could handle every night to regulate my body’s anxiety and sleep rhythms.
A mental and physical health routine is something they didn’t really teach me in art school, but it was critical for my long-term survival at bootcamp. I had to take it very seriously and it felt like it made a huge difference. After starting bootcamp again the routine I established ended up working a lot better than I was expecting, and I stuck to it consistently until graduation. The only augmentation I had to make was replacing the gym membership with a modest weight set at home, which was really helpful in addressing accute waves of anxiety. Running would have been cheaper but I’ve never had the knees for it unfortunately.
Side-Note: It’s also probably worth mentioning that this nervous breakdown situation occurred shortly after finding out that my wife was pregnant (which was very good but serious news). It didn’t feel directly connected at the time but in retrospect it obviously was. Also COVID didn’t start until I was about a third of the way through the bootcamp, but I was already stuck inside studying so it didn’t effect my routine until after graduation.
Surviving the Rest…
Once I had my study and self-care routines down and committed myself fully to them my bootcamp experience moved along steadily, blurring into one long matrix-tinted Rocky Balboa training montage.
Every week was a battle to survive that I thought I might not win, but I learned that I could survive and thrive in this state and although it never went away fully, eventually my imposter syndrome evolved into a more rational state of mind. I kept to myself as much as I needed to and devoted every waking hour I had to studying and practicing problems over and over and over again. After I found a good routine the whole thing blurred into one long matrix-tinted Rocky Balboa training montage.
Looking back on it, bootcamp was a lot like surviving the endless high-pressure critiques and studio visits that made up my experience in art school.
Ultimately I ended up doing much better than I was expecting to academically and built a lot of positive professional relationships as well as a couple of legitimate friendships with people outside the arts who I still keep in touch with. I got to feel a sense of triumph over some of the most difficult computer science topics I could have imagined and build functional full-stack web applications that I still maintain and legitimately use to this day.
Looking back on it, bootcamp was a lot like surviving the endless high-pressure critiques and studio visits that made up my experience in art school. My time as an art student and my time teaching prepared me a lot more than I would have expected to survive in a fast-paced technical environment.
Graduating and Getting a Job…
I was extremely impressed with App Academy’s resources and job coach support during my job search after graduation. I was also surprised with how quickly some of my peers found full-time jobs as software engineers in spite of being in the middle of the COVID pandemic. With that said I have been equally surprised with how long it takes some very qualified people to get their first job in the industry, both those coming from bootcamp backgrounds and with more traditional computer science degrees. From my limited perspective the time it takes people to get that first job offer out of bootcamp or college seems to depend somewhat on whether they’re willing to relocate or not, and their communication skills, but most of all on simply how many hours they put into applying for positions each day.
The major observation I made while job searching was that in my previous career in academia, it didn’t matter how much time you spent applying for jobs. There were only so many postings for teaching positions in the arts, and because of that and the finite nature of our existences, there was really no guarantee that you’d ever get one regardless of how qualified you were.
In software engineering, no matter how much we like to complain about job searching, it’s not a question of if you will ever find a good job, but just a matter of when. And I hope I never forget what a luxury that is.
My job search was cut short when I was offered a position working as an instructor and platform engineer at App Academy, which has been a separate but equally rewarding complimentary experience. Because I taught art before coming to bootcamp I knew I wanted to teach with App Academy if I had the opportunity from very early on.
It’s worth noting that I don’t have any personal incentive in encouraging people to attend App Academy specifically, but I would strongly suggest that anyone committing their lives to the arts consider supporting their creative practice with a career in software engineering. And I would add that without the academic structure of a bootcamp, I don’t think I ever could have made this career transition happen. At least not in any reasonable amount of time.
Some Scattered Conclusions…
I know how hard it is to survive piecing together employment in the arts and what a negative effect it can have on one’s studio practice and relationships. That struggle can be defeating, it can be frustrating, it can fracture friendships and communities, it can drive us to substance dependencies and even to the edge of insanity. But being on the other side of some of that, it’s difficult to describe how positive it feels to get off work at a regular time and go to my studio without the guilt and anxiety of not knowing how I’m going to survive financially in the next month or the next year. Going to a coding bootcamp was without a doubt the best single decision I’ve ever made for my studio, my family and my life in general.
Why aren’t there more visual artists supporting their studio practice with jobs in software development?
One last thing I want to note comes in the form of an open-ended question. Why aren’t there more visual artists supporting their studio practice with jobs in software development? In my short time in this industry I have met dozens of musicians and liberal arts graduates pursuing jobs in tech by way of coding bootcamps. But I can count the number of visual artist software engineers I know on one hand. I haven’t been able to identify any concrete reason for this absence, but it’s been conspicuously consistent in my experience so far.
From everything I’ve seen visual artists are 100% capable of working as software developers while maintaining robust studio practices. In my opinion visual artists deserve some share of the financial and cultural agency that comes from being a part of this expanding and increasingly influential community.
In my opinion visual artists deserve some share of the financial and cultural agency that comes from being a part of this expanding and increasingly influential community.
If you are a visual artist working in tech or are a former art student trying to transition into a career in software engineering I would love to connect any time. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Discord (discord link). I also throw helpful resources for visual artists / art students trying to get into tech here (resources link) whenever I find them. If anyone ever has suggestions for resources I’m always trying to add more!